Jay Leno, Age Discrimination, And Our Cultural Hypocrisy

Jay Leno, when he was talented.

Jay Leno, when he was talented.

One of the purposes of laws is to point the culture toward more ethical awareness and eventually, conduct. In the case of age discrimination, however, this isn’t working very well, and the recent foofaraw surrounding Jay Leno’s forced exit from the “Tonight Show” gives us some hints of why this is so.

NBC and the TV reporters covering the situation (in case you have a life: Leno has been forced to give up his 30 year reign at NBC’s flagship late night show in favor of his current follow-up on the NBC schedule, the lighter-than-air Jimmy Fallon) do not disguise the reason for Leno’s ouster: he is old, or at least considerably older than Fallon. Never mind that Jay still leads in the ratings over the despicable David Letterman, the Hell-spawn Jimmy Kimmel, and Jay’s former victim, poor, betrayed Conan O’Brien at TBS. Leno is 62, so he and his gray hair are being jettisoned by NBC in its fear that Kimmel, recently installed as competition by ABC, will siphon off more and more of the younger demographic that sponsors crave. I would think it would be much easier to tell Leno to start encouraging parents to torture their children too, but hey, what do I know?

What is telling is that nobody seems to see anything wrong with this. Old guys are a drag, we all know that, I guess. How many MSNBC hosts and Democratic Party flacks have loudly proclaimed that the Republican Party’s problem is that it is run by old guys? Old guys are trouble, sooner or later, so it certainly makes sense that anyone running a business or an organization figures out ways to dump them in favor of new blood, unless that pesky law stuff gets in the way. Then, of course, age discrimination is bad, bad, bad.

When this is the message being broadcast by events and accounts, the law loses all moral and ethical power. Since nobody says that age discrimination is wrong (Jay won’t, because he’s being paid the Gross National Product of Latvia to go away quietly), nobody except those discriminated against believe it is wrong. The laws prohibiting employers from firing workers based on age alone (you know, like NBC is doing with Jay) don’t express a public, national or official position on decency and fairness, but only reveal a successful lobbying effort by an interest group, bought and paid for by the geezer lobby. NBC is allowed to make cold business decisions based on its biases against older workers, but most of the business sector can’t. Airlines believe younger and shapelier flight attendants would boost business? Too bad—that’s age discrimination.

Democrats showed their true colors on this issue in 2008, when a large component of the criticism hurled at John McCain consisted of outright slurs on his age. As I wrote at the time (I’m too old and tired to go looking for it now), this was bigotry, but it worked, and it accurately reflected the culture’s values. It thinks age discrimination is OK. It also thinks it makes sense to transfer more and more money to the elderly whether they need it or not, and to provide more incentives for them to exit the workplace sooner rather than later, even if, like Leno, they can still do their jobs well.

This means the culture is stupid and wasteful, as well as bigoted.

And unethical. The attitude being projected by NBC and the media reaction to Leno’s ouster is that age discrimination is fine and logical if you can somehow get away with it. Businesses are getting good at that, too. It is still bigotry. A Leno who wins the late night ratings wars at 32 is no different from the Leno who is winning them at 62, and for him to be deemed less desirable and valuable simply because of his birthday is the very definition of prejudice. An ethical culture and its voice, the media, would say so without ambiguity. An ethical culture would punish NBC by leaving Jimmy with an audience devoid of artificial hips, osteoporosis and ear hair.

Mixed and muddled ethical messages are no way to build and maintain an ethical culture. Either we, as a culture, oppose bigotry against people based on group stereotypes, or we don’t. Gays who point to the Constitution as supporting their cause for the right to marry, women who are fighting for fair treatment in the workplace, minorities who deplore discrimination by banks and employers, should recognize that allowing one form of blatant discrimination to get a cultural pass jeopardizes their gains as well.  Hypocrisy run deep. Too often, unfortunately, the only forms of bias that cause outrage are those directed at us. Who cares about Jay Leno? After all, he’s an old guy. An old white guy. An old, white, rich guy.

In the U.S. culturally-approved prejudice game, that’s three strikes and out.


Graphic: Sobel Media

21 thoughts on “Jay Leno, Age Discrimination, And Our Cultural Hypocrisy

  1. I don’t think it’s quite that simple, Jack.

    Leno isn’t being forced out per se; NBC (of which I am NO fan, believe me) is simply not renewing his contract after the current one expires. They have the right to make this decision, of course; like any business, they have can change their products and services as they see fit. If the customers – in this case, the viewers – approve of the changes, they’ll do well. If not, well, chalk it up to another bad decision at 30 Rock.

    Rightly or wrongly, media stars have some privileges – and some risks – that the rest of us don’t enjoy. At one time – and it may still be true, by the way – TV newscasters were permitted to deduct the expense of Rogaine if they were losing their hair (you might think this odd, but I personally know two very good meteorologists whose contracts weren’t renewed because they were going bald. Guess there’s only so much Rogaine can do). Television relies heavily on physical image, and things that are perceived to turn off viewers, thus affecting ratings, may require change.

    Do I feel bad for my meteo buddies? Yes, I do – but anyone who enters show business in any form – TV, radio, film, stage – does so with the full knowledge that it’s a brutal business and that their employment can be terminated for a range of reasons – chief among them, whether they’re helping to attract an audience. Whether age is the dominant factor or something else is, the intent to maximize the potential audience is a valid business interest and, I would argue, not unethical when placed in the context of business continuity.

    • YOu’re right in a way… Conan was ousted by Leno when Conan’s ratings falling… It must be a very tough business where the only thing that really matters is your latest Q score and Nielsen Index ratings.

      The ethics or age, weight, race and personal attractiveness are left with the audience… And Jay is falling… Have watched him periodically for years and years, and lately he has beomce very mechanical and uninteresting… Probably started when NBC cut his very bloated staff salary by 25%….

    • Fine–then make the same determination for hospitals, law firms and other businesses. There are often benefits, tangible ones, of prejudice. And all prejudices—weight, race, handicapped status, you name it.

      • Jack, I see your point – and did so in the original post. My point is that media is a business in which specific attributes of age, physical appearance or manner of presentation directly impact the success of the product or service, unlike the outcomes reasonable to expect from hospitals, law firms or other businesses. Those becoming involved in the business are, or at least should be, aware of this, and choose to enter it anyway.

        In the hospital setting, for example, the product is successful resolution of illness (one hopes, anyway), and the age or appearance of health care providers is largely irrelevant to that outcome (assuming, of course, that your doctor isn’t senile). But in film or broadcast, age and physical appearance, to cite two parameters, are of critical importance to success. Kathy Bates might be a terrific actress, but any movie casting her as the ingenue will almost certainly fail, which is why she doesn’t do those roles. Is it unethical NOT to offer her such parts? I would submit that it’s not.

        • Big, big difference between canning Roger Moore because he’s obviously too old to play James Bond, and canning a comedian who is still as funny as anyone else and still doing the job. Casting is utilitarian—if Charlie Sheen is the best one for the job, he’s cast. The stories coming out about Leno are simply that NBC wants a younger guy to do Jay’s job, which Jay still does well. It’s not like canning a factory manager, I agree, but it’s too close for comfort.

          • Leaving aside that Moore should never have been cast to play Bond in the first place ;-> your argument here seems to boil down to “he’s still doing the job okay.” Your opinion, and I respect that.

            However, that’s not our decision to make. I thought “Arrested Development” was a positively hilarious show and was hugely disappointed when it got canceled. But the network thought the numbers went the wrong way. That’s showbiz….

        • OK, so do I risk being fired (sorry, not having my contract renewed) because I am middle aged and I’m not that attractive? Studies show that younger, more attractive professors are more popular with students (on student evaluations and surveys). If the university wants to attract more students, and retain more students, shouldn’t they fire me and all other professors over 35 and replace us with faculty in their late 20’s who are attractive?

          Doesn’t this also work with salesmen? Since they can’t use free merchandise and golf games any more, some pharmaceutical companies are using recent college cheerleaders as their drug reps. They found that young, attractive women are more effective than technical people who can explain how the product works, so should they be allowed to refuse to hire men and fire their reps (sorry, not renew their contracts) when they stop looking so desirable?

  2. Good. Leno’s not funny and has never been funny. Plus after he and his manager forced Carson out and he pulled that stunt on Conan he deserves this.

      • Of course it matters that he isn’t funny. His job is to be funny and he has never been funny. Once they had his ass out the door before they should never have let him back. His contract is up and they are not going to renew it. Whats wrong with that?

        • You’re not firing him, they are, and they aren’t firing him because you think he’s not funny. Obviously more people think he’s funny than think Letterman, Kimmel or Fallon are funny, which is what matters to them, or should. But that’s not what they are saying. They are saying he’s old, not unfunny.

  3. He used to be funnier, but none of the current crop are hosts of the Carson and Cavett school who engage in more than simple PR and let the guest do the shining. Leno and Letterman both used to be better at having guests with something to say or interesting regular people, from headlines to stupid pet tricks. Polished people who can only speak on tiny topic/projects aren’t interesting. I’m not sure why they’re still called talk shows.

  4. Just wait until Hillary Clinton is the Democratic nominee for President in 2016. Anyone who mentions her age then (or what it will be at the end of her proposed term) will be skewered by the left and the media (but I repeat myself). When you’re a saint, age doesn’t matter.

  5. Interesting take, I didn’t see this as age discrimination but as a business move based on targeted demographic.

    Humour is suggestive, I never thought Leno was particularly funny or entertaining. I don’t think Fallon’s any better but most people disagree with me.

  6. I pegged it down to his starting to skewer more and more people on the left. He’s been hitting the president hard lately. Can’t tell if that’s the chicken or the egg, though – he may simply know time is out, and is enjoying the freedom now. Kind of like Conan did.

  7. There are often benefits, tangible ones, of prejudice. And all prejudices—weight, race, handicapped status, you name it.

    And what about discrimination against those who are especially attractive?

    I find it very interesting that you made this post exactly one day after your follow-up about the cheerleading prosecutor. In your comments upon it, you make it pretty clear that you believe the firing of an attractive prosecutor would be all right if she was found to moonlight as an NFL cheerleader, because attractiveness is the key characteristic of a cheerleader, and intelligence is not required or exhibited.

    So suppose that a prosecutor and the host of a television program are fired at about the same time. The former has been discovered to be a cheerleader; the latter is pushing seventy. They are offered the following written explanations for why their contracts are being terminated:
    1) It has come to our attention that you currently serve as a cheerleader for the National Football League. It is well known that you are an attractive woman. While this in itself does not disqualify you from being an effective prosecutor, your choice of supplementary occupation emphasizes your attractiveness in a way that might raise questions about your intellect, judgment, and restraint, in the minds of clients and members of the public who are not familiar with your talents. For this reason, we regret that we must decline to renew your contract with us.

    2) It has come to our attention that you are currently a member of the community organization known as the Senior Corps. It is well known that you are an elderly man. While this in itself does not disqualify you from being an effective television personality, your choice of community affiliation emphasizes your age in a way that might raise questions about your vigor, intellectual flexibility, and understanding of contemporary issues, in the minds of younger viewers and members of the television audience who are not familiar with your talents. For this reason, we regret that we must decline to renew your contract with us.

    Is the prosecutor’s firing justified, while the television hosts isn’t? Why? What makes these two cases substantially different?

    Allow me to anticipate the most obvious attempt to deny the relevance of the analogy. Leno, you might say, is not being fired for any particular affiliation or activity. He’s being fired for simply being old. To that I would say, “No, he isn’t.” He’s being fired for failing to appeal to younger audiences. According to the NY Post,

    Leno’s audience in the coveted advertising demographic of 18- to 49-year-olds fell 10.4 percent in the first quarter, to 990,000, according to Nielsen — the first quarter the veteran talk show host went head-to-head with Kimmel.

    That’s pretty damn significant. Being old might help a person to reach this outcome, but it doesn’t guarantee it. If Leno had found a means by which to prove that he could draw in and retain a younger crowd, then he might be keeping his job. You say he’s still winning the ratings war and that that proves him to still be competent. But how long will that remain the case if his show is hemorrhaging young viewers and most of the hangers-on have one foot in the grave? He may still be competent, but so might be a cheerleading prosecutor. The problem in the latter case, according to you, is the maintenance of an image befitting the requirements of the profession. How is it any different in the case of an older television host who is not appealing to young viewers?

    • First, you have to show me where I said she should be fired. I said it was unethical. If I were her boss I’d tell her not to do it, that it hurt the office, that it made her less credible, fairly or not. Obviously she had permission to do it. If he told her no and she did it anyway, that’s insubordination. But I didn’t make it clear that she should be fired, because I don’t believe that.

      I just think its unprofessional and unethical.

      • My mistake. I inferred the justification of firing from the fact that you referred to it as a “Cheerleading Prosecutor Principle,” in reference to the Naked Teacher Principle and its derivatives. Unless I’m mistaken again, the general principle holds that if a person is caught in compromising self-presentations, they cannot keep their job.

        • Understandable. I said there WAS a “Cheerleading Prosecutor Principle,” but I didn’t define it. I’d define it now as “prosecutors and judges as the representatives of the government and the justice system violate their duty to maintain the trustworthiness, image, decorum and dignity of their position and the system they represent by engaging in avocations that the public is likely to feel in inconsistent with the positions of trust they hold.

          I fudged the “naked teacher principle” too, because I left the decision whether the teacher should be fired to others. I juts say (this is in the special terms section):

          “The Principle states that a secondary school teacher or administrator (or other role model for children) who allows pictures of himself or herself to be widely publicized, as on the web, showing the teacher naked or engaging in sexually provocative poses, cannot complain when he or she is dismissed by the school as a result.”

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